Dreaded But Necessary

When doctors start talking about cholesterol, it’s rarely a good thing. They usually bring it up in the context of high cholesterol, which can lead to some serious problems further down the line. You do need some cholesterol, though. It’s essential to human survival.

To start, let’s discuss what cholesterol actually is and what it does in the body. It’s a type of fat generally found in the blood. It helps build and maintain cell membranes, contributes to signaling between cells and regulates various bodily processes. The body can produce its own cholesterol, but we can also receive it from our diet.

Foods that are rich in cholesterol are often the same ones that are heavy in saturated fat, which you may recognize as another food group you should avoid. This includes dairy products like butter and cheese, various types of fatty meat, and snacks like cakes and cookies. Smoking and too much alcohol can also raise your cholesterol levels, as can not getting enough exercise.

Why do we need to worry about high cholesterol? It doesn’t have any symptoms in its own right, so you might think it’s safe to ignore. The problem is that high cholesterol can also contribute to other, more serious medical conditions. If cholesterol increases until it blocks the arteries, it could cause a stroke. It can also lead to heart attacks and other heart problems.

The best way to find out if your cholesterol is too high is with a blood test. This may involve taking blood from your arm, but sometimes it can be done with just a light prick on your fingertip. Your doctor may recommend testing your cholesterol based on your age, weight, family history or if you suffer from other conditions such as high blood pressure or diabetes.

There are different types of cholesterol. HDL is the good kind, which can actually reduce your risk of heart attacks and strokes. LDL, or non-HDL, is the bad kind that you want to avoid, and there are also substances similar to bad cholesterol known as triglycerides that have a similar impact. Some cholesterol tests only measure your overall cholesterol, so you may want to check how much of it is bad or how much of it is good.

If your cholesterol is too high, your doctor or nurse will probably talk to you about ways to reduce it. This will start with lifestyle changes like cutting back on alcohol and smoking, as well as exercising more. You may try to replace high-cholesterol foods with low-cholesterol alternatives such as whole wheat bread and pasta or oily fish. It’s a good idea to increase your fruit and vegetable intake and eat more seeds and nuts.

Sometimes lifestyle changes on their own won’t be enough to reduce cholesterol. If these steps don’t work, you may need to try medication. The most common medicines for managing high cholesterol are statins. You take one a day and your body will start producing less cholesterol. Once you start taking statins, it’s likely you will remain on them for the rest of your life. If statins don’t work for you or you can’t take them for any reason, there are alternative medications available.

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